Preventing MRSA in Athletes

Drug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (staph) infections are a hazard for athletes of all ages. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, commonly known as MRSA, is a type of bacterial infection resistant to common antibiotics such as penicillin. These staph bacteria most often cause minor skin infections in young athletes, but if untreated, it may invade the bloodstream and become a life-threatening infection.

Millions of people see their doctor for MRSA skin infections every year. The infection is highly contagious and easily spread through direct physical contact with an infected person, making this a concern for those who play sports.

Young football team in huddle

In fact, MRSA infections are quite common in athletes because the bacteria can spread via skin-to-skin contact or through sharing athletic equipment or even towels. Poor hygiene, such as skipping hand-washing before and after sports, can also contribute to MRSA, as can injuries that allow the bacteria to enter the skin. The MRSA bacteria can creep into the body through any open cut or wound, causing an infection.

How is MRSA spread?

If you are an athlete with a cut or scrape, you can get MRSA through:

  • Skin-to-skin contact with a person with a MRSA infection

  • Sharing equipment or personal items such as towels with someone who has MRSA

  • Touching any surface, from workout equipment to shared soap or ointment, that's contaminated with MRSA

What are the symptoms of MRSA?

These are symptoms of a MRSA skin infection:

  • Bump that is painful, red, leaking pus, and/or swollen. (This may resemble a spider bite, pimple, or boil.) 

  • Bumps under the skin that are swollen or hard to the touch

  • Skin around a sore that is warm or hot to the touch

  • Bump that grows rapidly and/or does not heal 

  • Painful sore accompanied by a fever 

  • Rash or pus-filled blisters 

  • Draining boil or abscess 

MRSA infections often start at a location where the skin is already visibly broken, such as with a cut or sore. They may also occur in places that are usually covered by hair. 

It's important to have these symptoms evaluated by a health care provider so that you can receive prompt treatment and avoid complications. Fever, chills, body aches, a rash, or shortness of breath could also be signs of a systemic MRSA infection that requires emergency treatment.

Can MRSA be prevented?

Here are tips to help athletes reduce the risk of contracting a MRSA infection:

  • Carefully wash and bandage any scrapes, cuts, wounds, or injuries.

  • Don't share razors, towels, or athletic equipment.

  • Wash hands frequently -- always before and after playing sports, working out, or using athletic equipment.

  • Use liquid soap rather than bar soap when washing hands to avoid sharing soap and spreading germs.

  • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available.

  • Always shower after sports practice or training.

  • Never share any shower equipment or toiletries.

  • Always thoroughly wash and dry uniforms or practice clothing after each use.

  • Protect skin with a barrier, such as a towel, when using a sauna or weightlifting equipment where the skin may come into contact with bacteria.

  • Wear protective gear or equipment to help reduce the chance of cuts, friction, or other injuries while playing sports.

How should I care for wounds?

Proper wound care can help prevent the spread of MRSA in athletes. In addition to prompt medical care and treatment, athletes should take care to keep all cuts, scrapes, and abrasions completely covered with a bandage. Thoroughly wash the wound and apply a fresh bandage frequently throughout the day. Make sure that the wound cannot come into contact with other people or equipment. 

How is MRSA treated?

Your health care provider will discuss treatment options with you. These may include:

  • Drainage of any abscess or fluid-filled sore

  • Sending infected fluid to a lab for a culture to determine the bacteria

  • Antibiotic treatment

  • Nasal swabbing with mupirocin (an antibacterial ointment) and body washing with diluted bleach in water or chlorhexidine (an antibacterial soap). These steps may be taken to remove colonization of MRSA bacteria from your body.